A man who does not know fear tastes the blood of the dragon that he slays. A more gripping image for a heroic fantasy can hardly be imagined! But the hero in this fantasy is hardly heroic. Not that he spring evil deeds from some dark impulse, as a reader might suppose. No, he springs from surprisingly pure impulses into…air. I am speaking of Richard Wagner’s Siegfried, the third opera in his four-opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung (Der Ring Des Nibelungen). Now, an essay on Siegfried should be informed by the fourth opera in the cycle, Götterdämmerung, but that opera deserves its own essay, which would center on its heroine, Brünnhilde. Siegfried is the son of the noble Siegmund and the beautiful Sieglinde but is raised by the evil dwarf, Mime. The dwarf’s smithy cave cannot hold Siegfried’s expansive spirit. The young man spends his days roaming the forest, and though Mime plots to profit from him, the young man throws off Mime’s plots like a set of poorly made fetters. Here is my telling of the tale:
When the curtain rises, the dwarf pleads patience from Siegfried in the matter of re-forging the sword of Siegfried’s inheritance. Every other sword had that Mime makes for him breaks when he tests it. But the young man scoffs at the dwarf’s pleas and protests against their alleged kinship. He asks where the woman is who would be Mime’s female and Siegfried’s mother—since there is not one to be found—and cites his loathing for the ugly dwarf. He has learned from his tours in nature that a bond of affection binds together every offspring and its mother and father. In anger, the young man takes the fragments of the sword in hand, heats the forge to previously unknown heights, and re-forges the fragments into a sword, Nothung. The dwarf cowers before this ferocity, and when the young man tests the sword against the anvil, it is not the sword that breaks but the anvil. Siegfried seeks out the dragon of the forest that Mime describes in order to learn this curious thing, fear, from it.
The dragon, Fafner, was once a giant, one of two brothers who built glorious Asgard for Wotan (Odin). When Wotan did not deliver to them the daughter that he promised, they took a treasure of gold instead, among which lay the cursed gold of the Rhine. Fafner slew his brother over it, transformed himself into a dragon, and retired into the forest to hoard his treasure. It was this Rhinegold, now molded into a ring, that Mime plotted to steal away from the dragon after Siegfried was to slay it. The ring grants all power to the one who forswears love. Mime’s own brother, Alberich, had been the one that took the gold from the maidens who protected it in the Rhine. Siegfried faces the dragon and slays it, but disappointedly, because the dragon did not teach him fear
Then a bit of the dragon’s blood chances upon his lips, and his ears are opened to the knowledge of birdsong. Longing for companionship, the bird that he had befriended on the way to the dragon, trading tunes on his horn for melodies from its beak, now tells him of a bride atop a mountain. Siegfried takes the ring but does not know its curse. He rushes to find this bride, but he has never seen a woman before, and when he finds her asleep in full armor, he mistakes her for a man. To ease her breathing, he removes her helmet and breastplate, and underneath he sees the fearsome beauty of woman. Then he knows fear, yet he is overcome with love for her, and when he kisses her, she wakens. She, the daughter of Wotan, Brünnhilde, wonders at the life to which she has newly returned, but then she withdraws from the man who woke her, although she knows that he passed through the wall of fire that Wotan raised, as a concession to her, to prevent any fearful man from finding her. When she was captain of his Valkyrie, the warrior women who gather souls for the battle of Ragnarök, she stole away Sieglinde from the vengeance that was due upon her for betraying her husband with Siegmund. Wotan stripped Brünnhilde of her office and declared that she would marry the next man who sees her. But after Siegfried’s entreaty, Brünnhilde yields to the young man, and the curtain falls.
More happens besides, particularly with Wotan and Mime, but the tale as told here represents the core of Siegfried’s character. His actions in Götterdämmerung are more of the same or are even more damning. Siegfried is above all a free-spirited man, fearless, and romantic in a Wagnerian way. The particulars in his life—Brünnhilde, Fafner, Nothung, Mime—are only incidental to the swoosh of feelings within him. The feelings are the essential. The particulars are incidental. He is not moved by Brünnhilde but by his love for her. He does not delight in Nothung but in his exultation surrounding it. He is not disgusted by Mime but feels disgust for Mime’s ugly form. With so little to do with particulars, there is little to particularize him. He is hardly a character, ethically speaking and with respect to literature, and he is even less a hero.
Siegfried is not self-absorbed in the usual way. He does not spend his time reflecting about himself. He is not Hamlet. His self-absorption curiously quite unreflective. The “self” that he absorbs is not his own personal ego but the sub-personal cloud of his feelings. To be sure, sometimes he springs into action. He surely thinks about his actions, too, but he does not think about whether to take them. He lives forward, as it were, and he has not thought of an action before he has taken it. Entreating Brünnhilde, slaying the dragon, re-forging the sword, questioning Mime—he is not in the present before he rushes into the future. People who live too far forward usually fall sick in their spirit when present things are not great enough to hold their attention. They become listless or destructive in the face of things whose mediocrity bores or affronts them. But Siegfried does not become listless or destructive because new feelings never fail to spring from some impulse in him. He is filled with feelings and springs into…air.
He lives so far forward that when he looks backward, he seems to have done it backstage, so to speak, that is, offstage. When his love for Brünnhilde induces him to forget fear, he declares that he never learned fear in the first place. Now, love may incline him to exaggerate, but this is one of the few times that Siegfried ever looks backward until the next opera. Indeed, the audience may have difficulty knowing just what Siegfried has or has not done, because the swoosh of his feelings tend to fill the audience’s mind only with what the young man is doing—now. Neither does the occasional obscurity of the libretto make the matter any easier.
These feelings spring up abundantly from whatever his impulses are, and he, absorbed in them, springs—that is to say, flings himself or is flung—into…air. What is there, where he is going? Where does he aim in his rushing? A poorly defined future that does not become present before it is flung again in the future.
Happily, his impulses are not dark but pure: he roams the forest, he asks about his mother, he repudiates Mime, he sets about re-forging Nothung, he plays a tune for the bird, he plunges his sword into the dragon, he stalks through fire, he kisses Brünnhilde. That is, he loves nature, honors motherhood, despises ugliness, thrills with boyish spiritedness, displays gentleness with delicate things, acts harshly with evil things, persists through adversity, yearns adoringly after feminine beauty—but all out of impulse. I shudder to think what would happen if a wicked impulse sprang up in him. He could become a slaughterer of a singularly vile order, or a seducer or a betrayer. There would be no limit to his villainy, except that it would never become personal. His comeliness and strength would mask his wickedness, but he would not think to mask it with them.
Yes, Siegfried does spring into action, but, well, no action is complete until it has its effect on the person who took it, and actions have little effect on Siegfried. Siegfried is like a crashing cymbal: brilliant when struck, and perhaps struck at every moment, but always fading already into dimness. Consequently, ethically, he has almost no character at all, however much good he accomplishes, because character is the effect of an action upon the actor.
As a literary character, Siegfried’s concept is: heroically, fullness of feeling in emptiness of air. This concept could be very interesting, were he for example to realize his own insubstantiality. Then his character would have undergone some change, whether he then becomes ethically substantial or not. But Siegfried is interesting only because of the greatness of Wagner’s music, the source of the fantasy in Norse myth, the explosiveness of many plot concepts, and the ingenuity of the designs of its various stage productions—no mean thing! But none of these are interesting in a literary way, which is in the change of a character. From a literary perspective, Siegfried is hardly a character at all.
Siegfried is even less a hero. The essence of a hero is to respond to some circumstance of dire need with a deed of godlike salvation. The deed may be to preserve some particular good or to bring it into being, for example, or to prevent some particular evil or to bring it to nothing. But the action must be so direly needed that the one who does it is, in this deed, like something more than a mortal being. The action could be as small as writing a certain word on a slip of paper, and it could even fail to achieve the good at which the hero aimed it—it could, no less, achieve a good at which the hero did not aim—but it must be aimed at a good, and all of Siegfried’s actions are aimed at…air. True, the dwarf and the dragon are evil enough, and the restoration of his noble heritage and the beautiful innocence of his bride are good enough, but these circumstances are not so very dire, and his actions do not so very much respond to them in particular. Siegfried is a counterfeit.
Now, in the longest possible view, his slaying of the dragon and other actions lead Brünnhilde to unmake the curse of the ring and bring about the death of the gods. After many complications, Siegfried dies, Brünnhilde rides with the ring into his funeral pyre, and all of Asgard goes up in flames. How hardily she is a heroine, then, I leave for another essay. She is supposed to take the action that she does for love and not forswearing it. But let us say that the death of the gods is good, and so in the longest view Siegfried’s actions are, perhaps, from that point of view, heroic. But that is another way of springing into the air, because then it is not him who is the hero who springs into action but some god or other who, acting through him, springs just as impulsively into…air. For what? The death of the gods is hardly a good. And what would be left? Not Wotan, the mightiest of the gods, who resorts to something mightier than himself in order to bring about his own death. Therefore, none of the weaker gods either. Love? And what is that, without any particular persons, but air?
Images: Arthur Rackham’s illustrations in Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung (1910)